NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, the New York Islanders.
The New York Islanders enter this season with hopes of building on a postseason run that left them six wins shy of a Stanley Cup championship.
New York has qualified for the postseason in each of the two seasons with Barry Trotz as coach and Lou Lamoriello as general manager; it reached the Eastern Conference Second Round in 2018-19 and took another step last season, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final in six games.
But the Islanders know the days of qualifying and perhaps winning a round won’t suffice. Contending must become the new norm.
“Us as a team, I think starting [in 2018-19], the expectations continue to grow,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said after agreeing to a two-year contract Nov. 4. “We expect to be deep in the playoffs every season. Obviously, the main goal is the Stanley Cup, and we’re going to continue to push to get closer to that until we can achieve that.”
They’ll have to do so without two key defensemen. Devon Toews, who excelled at each end over the past two seasons, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and in the 2022 NHL Draft on Oct. 12 due to NHL salary cap constraints. Johnny Boychuk, a mainstay since 2014, is ending his playing career because of an injury to his left eye.
Their departures open the door for Noah Dobson, a first-round pick (No. 12) in the 2018 NHL Draft who spent all of last season with New York but was limited to 34 games due to the logjam. Whether or not Dobson will play on a pair with defenseman Andy Greene remains to be seen; Greene, acquired from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 16, is an unrestricted free agent.
“It gives opportunities for other guys, whether it be Dobson or other guys stepping in,” Pulock said. “… I think it’s just a good challenge for other guys to step in.”
The Islanders still need to sign their top offensive player, center Mathew Barzal, who led them with 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists) in 68 games and is a restricted free agent.
“We both obviously want to make it work so that we can keep everyone together, and I think that’s the main goal,” said Pulock, who was a restricted free agent and avoided a salary arbitration hearing. “We want to win together. We want to keep this team together.
“… Obviously a goal of ours was to win the Stanley Cup. Getting that close, you still think about it and it still kind of bites you inside, just how close we really were but how far we still had to go. I think once you get a taste of that and you get that far, it kind of burns that fire that you want to get back there. I’m looking forward to next year and taking another run at it.”
New York will have a change at goalie too. Ilya Sorokin, who played the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, will replace Thomas Greiss, who agreed to a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 10. The 25-year-old will form a goalie tandem with Semyon Varlamov, who had a 2.14 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 20 postseason games (19 starts).
At forward, Matt Martin and Derick Brassard are each an unrestricted free agent, but the possibility to re-sign exists. Oliver Wahlstrom, a first-round pick (No. 11) in the 2018 NHL Draft, is expected to fight for a spot in training camp. The remainder of the group, including center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who was acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 24, remains intact.
“I don’t think we felt that distance of those extra six wins was very great; you get to that point in the season and it’s such a fine line,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “The separation between teams and Tampa [Bay] was extremely deserving, but it’s tight, and getting to that point and giving yourself that opportunity, the teams that we overcame, all that stuff that has to go right in the previous two rounds, and the play-in round as well, there’s a lot of work and stuff to get to that point. You got a full regular season and two rounds [before you get to] the Eastern Conference Final.
“So it’s a long road regardless, and now that we as a group accomplished a decent amount of it, it excites you to get back to that spot, that’s for sure.”